Sustainability and Communication – Fostering a Trusting Work Environment

How closely you engage your employees can be the difference between sustaining through tough times or sinking into insignificance.

Unlike ever before the barometer of engagement is been tested so intently by employees in organizations world over.

Sustainability means different things for different organizations – ranging from work-life balance to being a great place to work, from better opportunities to quality of work and from retention to social responsible behavior. Leadership, respect and culture also play important roles.



According to Nielsen’s bi-annual Global Online Consumer Opinion Survey, work-life balance ranks among the highest concerns for Indians. Despite communication technology proving to be a boon in overcoming work-life imbalance, it has far reaching consequences which come out strongly in every organization’s engagement surveys.

I was struck by how in an organization ‘sustainability’ became an issue only because there was pressure to do ‘more with less’. Context:  the current economic environment. While the same practice in ‘better’ times was considered normal by the very same employees. In this context, sustainability was equated to ‘not being able to cope’ with pressure, cases of burnout, absenteeism among other symptoms.

A recent study – ‘human resources and sustainable development’ recommends going deeper into what motivates the employees and articulating a culture transformation. What makes it more complex is that ‘sustainability’ has multiple stakeholders and owners – HR, marketing, communication, public relations and finance to name a few.

It is vital to first understand the sources of employee motivation – be it achievement, advancement, challenge, belonging, contribution to society, involvement, financial reward, growth and development, intellectual interest, job security, pride in organization, recognition and respect, responsibility and work environment. As an organization if you are able to provide most of these wants, chances are that your engagement score is higher than the rest.

It easier said that done to provide for all these parameters. Accountability for sustainability need to be within each organization.  ‘Outsourcing’ to third parties for ‘organizational interventions’ is a route taken but very often results in mistrust and cynicism.

As internal communicators, supporting large scale sustainability improvements means also playing the role of mentor and sounding post to human resource professionals who face reluctant supervisors and other pressing issues that tend to overshadow the purpose.

Providing avenues for dialogue, highlighting best practices, creating communication toolkits (presentations, messages, posters, contests) which sustainability leaders can leverage, reporting progress and metrics, and championing community initiatives with the CSR contacts are areas where internal communicators can support.

By encouraging employees to step back and understand the causes of ‘un-sustainability’, you help create an inclusive culture to problem solving.

That said, sustainability take time to seep through an organization and staying focused on the outcomes is key to success.

Calling Communicators – You Have a Responsibility As Educators Too!

As communicators, I believe we are truly honored to watch how communication gets created and experienced at close quarters – especially internal communications. Since internal communications is rarely discussed at external forums or shared due to company confidentiality issues it is by far a greater challenge blurring what students or newbie communicators get to learn.



From my understanding and experience, most internal communicators come in from a wide range of domains such as public relations, advertising, journalism, event management and direct marketing to take up responsible positions in their corporate or marketing communication groups.

Considering the gap between what is taught at institutes and what is practiced in the industry, I am not surprised by the perceptions students have of this field.

Recently, while addressing students of a leading media and communication course at a South Indian institute, I was asked some basic questions which got me to think if we are really doing enough.

Sample these:

a)       How is it like in the corporate world?

b)      What is a fresher or a newbie in the field of communication expected to do when you start out?

c)       How do we know if we are cut out for the job?

d)      How do we know if we are in the right assignment?

e)       Which are the different roles and designations that exist?

There are a few themes which emerge from these questions –

a) The basics of what this domain stands for

b) Expectations from communicators in organizations

c)  Success parameters in this role

From my interactions, it is evident that students are expecting us to be sharing our personal experiences, how we navigated the system, what we learnt along the way, how we applied our knowledge, what ticks and what doesn’t work.

I believe it is imperative that we as communicators do our bit to spread the word on the communication function and why it is so critical to the organization’s health.

So what can you do?

Spending a few hours talking to them can build confidence, encourage them to read more about the subject and contribute towards the development of the domain. Share articles and trends which shape the way communication is done today. Be a mentor to a few students so that they can prepare themselves better. Guide them on how to draft their CVs.

The industry also stands to gain from having enthusiastic people with cool ideas joining the workforce.

I must admit that the industry really needs to add fresher ideas by having committed individuals take up larger responsibilities.  I guess it applies to many other functions and industries.

What do you think?

Overcoming Swine Flu Pandemic Myths and Fears – Communicators Lead the Way

India has got the chills. The swine flu pandemic which was distant to our shores is now a national crisis.

While the government is taking measures to prevent the spread, there is inertia among most organizations in India in getting the message out to employees.

Some companies have been proactive – sending out mailers, placing posters, inviting medical professionals to address their staff, requesting sick employees to undergo tests and sanitizing the workplace. Clients have begun seeking answers on how they can continue to get their business running without delays.

Twin Cover

Twin Cover

The usual question arises: who owns sharing these updates? Is it the human resources team, is it the facilities or office team, the marketing or PR team, is it the leadership or is it the project team?

While this debate carries on, employees get perturbed at the lack of information or fume at the apathy in protecting their interests. This leads to discontentment and resentment.

Most employees are seeking information at 6 levels:

a) What is the current scenario globally?

b) How badly is India impacted?

c) What is the industry/organization doing to stem the spread?

d) What can I tell my clients?

e) What is their immediate leadership doing to support the efforts?

f) Finally, what can they do to help out?

It is also important to educate your managers on how to address queries from their teams. In one case, the manager told his sick employee ‘not to come near him’ causing the team to get extremely upset at the high handed response. In another incident, a manager forced his employee to travel despite fears of getting affected.

In both these scenarios, sensitivity may have helped the employee and the team involved to feel valued as individuals.

The manager could have requested the individual to seek immediate medical support and personally checked on the situation. In the second case, a face to face session on how travel and the spread of virus are not interrelated may help in alleviating fears.

Instead of resolving the ownership issue, it is imperative that communicators do their bit to get the message out soon. Based on the 6 levels of information needs, there are numerous credible resources such as the World Health Organization website or the Government of India Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to refer to get basic inputs.

Work with your leadership to understand the point of view and steps to inform clients. Understand what the industry is doing to support the measures. Look up NASSCOM’s update.

Prepare a short key messages draft for all your stakeholders to communicate consistently. Follow-up on the impact and reactions.

Lead the way communicators!

Sense and Senstivity in Internal Communications

Your leadership wanted to beat the recession. We had layoffs. We were pressurized to revisit our operating expenses. That led to a wave of reforms (pay cuts, reduction in benefits among others). You (the HR and Communications teams) believed it was necessary and you communicated it the right way.

Or did we? Were we sensitive to those employees whom we had to say goodbye? Did we treat them fairly?  What makes us sensible and sensitive to the needs of our employees – with or without a downturn?

In the article ‘HR in the times of e-slowdown’, some interesting viewpoints from leading HR professionals drew my attention.



In this freewheeling debate, one calls for “sensitivity training for many of our people in HR”. Quite an honest statement and I appreciated the directness.

Yet another said – “We (HR) are not there for doing our processes; we are only there to support the business.” Equally powerful. To view your function as a business enabler is a fantastic mind shift and can open so many avenues.

I also was impressed by the fact that internal communications as a necessity getting a mention!

Read on: “HR has to set up its own internal communication game-plan. It has to really set the vision, firm up processes, have a series of FAQs, handhold line managers through whom they have to communicate hard decisions down the line. So, we should handle internal communications as a mission and with a system and purpose.”

And finally – this individual went deeper into the mind frame of those who quit.

“Why do people leave an organization? People leave for lack of feel. They don’t feel valued.”

The writing is clearly on the wall. If we want our employees and stakeholders to perceive us as credible people, get real about how you handle your communication and your interactions. Never before have organizations and support functions like the human resources and the communications been so closely watched by employees. Forget your annual surveys and pulse checks. It is time to relook at what and how you inform and engage your employees.

Thankfully, sensitivity can be taught and practiced. But, before that you need to understand the consequences of the not being so and how to change your communication.

Consistency is so crucial. If your HR professionals are rude or distasteful in their interactions, no amount of finely crafted mailers can get your employees to accept you.

Get everyone aligned. Are you all singing the same tune or are some speaking in tongues? In one instance, employees went from town hall to town hall and found senior leaders speaking different messages to similar questions on a business crisis.

Demonstrate your commitment to sensitivity. How often have you taken action on a staff that wasn’t courteous with employees? Show that you personally care about it first and that you mean business. When was the last time a request from an employee for fair treatment was addressed and communicated?

Involve your employees in crafting the communication. Share rough outlines and messages with a few employees to get a sense of what works and what may not. You will be amazed at what employees can spot which you overlooked. They are the consumer of your communication – who else can get it right?

Keep in touch or be known as a ‘hire and fire’ employer. The word spreads however hard you try and control it. You haven’t let go of doves – but people. They are and can be just as useful when the economy revives.

Getting employees on the same page with company confidential information. Catch-22?

Not just knowledge intensive industries but even FMCGs competing for mindshare face this dilemma. On one hand you want to have your employees on your side by letting them into your plans and on the other you want to ensure they can keep a secret. The best policies and processes may not be enough to keep things in. Tough?

Especially if you are in projects which demand secrecy such as the defense forces or the intelligence agencies, it is a need and a matter of practice. The recent unveiling of the INS Arihant – India’s first nuclear powered submarine, is a case in point. Till the launch, employees always believed they worked on a different project altogether. Or was it a case of different people getting to touch only a part of the entire puzzle?



Research points out those organizations who keep employees regularly abreast of the company’s strategy and plans do much better than those who communicate lesser.

What if you are in the technology, energy, automotive or even say packaged food sectors?  What can organizations do to maintain a balance of sharing processes, plans and milestones yet keeping a firm hold on proprietary content? Packaging best practices, patented solutions, brand secrets, hiring plans, new launches and more – there are lots for organizations to lose.

A McAfee survey estimates that data leakage costs organizations $1.82 million on average per year. 33 percent of respondents believe that a major breach could potentially put them out of business, while 70 percent believe that a major breach could seriously damage their company’s brand.

I am aware of organizations which thrive on secrecy while others who bungle despite putting in stringent measures to control information flow. One such firm includes an annual exercise to share their vision on ‘trust’ and maintaining ‘company confidential information’. It even monitors e-mails and embeds code to block potentially information from leaking out. Separate monitored computers allow employees to access the Web. With the spread of social media, it is getting more and more difficult for organizations to keep a tab on data theft and information pilferage. According to a commentry on Jacob Neilsen’s Alertbox, ” it can be unnerving for traditionalist executives to see employees freely discussing company strategies. But loosening control of information on the intranet is a way to control a much bigger risk: that employees will spill the beans on Internet-wide social media. When people have internal media at their disposal, they’ll post their questions and comments there, as opposed to going outside”.

The McAfee  survey reports that ‘over 60% resort to dismissing employees found to be stealing or revealing company secrets but very few walk their talk when it comes to monitoring and educating employees.’

Here are some thoughts which I believe communicators can use to share the right message with employees.

To begin, it is essential to get employees thinking in terms of the common purpose and objectives. Help them understand their contribution in making the organization successful.

  1. Educate them on the downsides of information leakage – for example, impact to the project, the organization and finally their job.
  2. That apart, information can be placed at a common space for sharing within teams.
  3. Include employees in drafting the confidentiality policy and how they can enforce it.
  4. Appoint internal champions who can own sections of the program.
  5. Recognize their contribution and encourage open conversations.
  6. Share examples and scenarios of how information leaks can damage a brand.
  7. Invite senior leaders to come in to your team meetings and talk about how critical information protection is.
  8. Finally, monitor all start and end points of your process to close on gaps, if any.

Like they say – trust in God but lock your car!